Q&A: Aegis Wing interns take flight

Two of the three student designers of Microsoft's free Live Arcade game talk about their inspirations and experience making the arcade-style Xbox 360 shooter.

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Microsoft has positioned the Xbox Live Arcade as an even playing field to showcase a wide variety of offerings from big publishers and small unknown developers alike. Aegis Wing, set for release on the Xbox Live Arcade tomorrow morning, represents both.

Publishers don't get much bigger than Microsoft, but developers don't get much smaller or more obscure than a trio of students who designed Aegis Wing during a three-month internship with the Redmond, Washington-based company last summer.

The end result of their toil (with an assist by Carbonated Games) is a side-scrolling shoot-'em-up with a heavy focus on cooperative online or offline gameplay for up to four players. What's more, Microsoft is making Aegis Wing available for free to all Xbox Live members. While a Microsoft representative told GameSpot the company won't ever charge for Aegis Wing, it might not be available forever. However, he did say it would get at least a couple of weeks on the service.

Attaching ships lets one player pilot while the other controls the heavy firepower.
Attaching ships lets one player pilot while the other controls the heavy firepower.

The three interns--Matt Monson, Danny Dyer, and Scott Brodie--have parlayed their experiences into career opportunities. Monson graduated from Texas A&M and now works full-time at Microsoft's Turn 10 Studios (developers of the Forza Motorsport series). Fellow Aggie Dyer is finishing up at A&M and considering grad school, but he has accepted an internship at Turn 10 in the meantime. A recent Michigan State University graduate, Brodie has gone to work for Carbonated Games, the team behind the Live Arcade version of Uno and the studio that helped finish Aegis Wing.

GameSpot had a chance to speak with Dyer and Brodie this week about their experiences on Aegis Wing and what's going through their minds with the imminent release of the final product.

GameSpot: Was designing and releasing a full-fledged Xbox Live Arcade game on the internship description when you applied for it?

Scott Brodie: Yeah, it was. It was not necessarily in the direct description. It was just sort of "Let's make an XBLA game," and that sort of implied releasing it. We didn't find out until we got here that we'd also have the ability to develop an original IP.

Danny Dyer: I'm not sure we ever really intended to release something in three months, but we tried to get as much as we could done toward a playable beta. I don't think we ever thought it would be released after three months, but we were definitely shooting for that.

GS: What were your inspirations for Aegis Wing?

SB: Aegis Wing is a mix of a Gradius-style shooter with the goal of a co-op shooter. One of the first things that came to mind was the Voltron-style connection mechanic; the main feature of the game was the multiplayer. The idea was to take the 2D side-scrolling genre and add in a more collaborative mechanic that would feature the concept we wanted of people working together. So it stems from that basic idea of letting you and your friends form a big machine like Voltron together.

GS: You mentioned Gradius, but having played just the first level on the most basic difficulty, it seems like Aegis Wing throws a good deal more at you.

The player ships aren't especially big, leaving plenty of room for enemy bullets.
The player ships aren't especially big, leaving plenty of room for enemy bullets.

SB: It definitely has a little bit more of a hardcore spin on it--more of the "bullet hell"-type shooter portion to it. I don't know if that wasn't the original intention, but it ended up fitting well with the number of enemies we had and the way the game was playing. We wanted a specific reason for you to detach when you were attached as a group, [and that is] so you have to dodge.

GS: How different is the finished product from what you originally set out to do?

DD: I think it's quite a bit different, maybe not completely. A lot of the stuff is pretty similar, but they took out a lot of features that we really spent a lot of time on and were the main focus that we put in. I think it makes the game simpler and makes it a lot easier for more people to play. I can still see it's the same game, but it's definitely missing some of the things that we put a lot of effort into.

SB: And in many ways, that's game development at the end of the day. We had a very limited time schedule. I wouldn't necessarily say it was a total knockdown, but it was good advice in the sense of, "Let's make this game accessible, and let's make sure we can get it done." The decisions were made for positive reasons for sure.

GS: Can you give an example of one of the features that you would have liked to put in but had to cut for simplicity's sake?

SB: The major feature was the robustness of how you could attach [your ships together]. You could attach in a wider set of configurations. But the final version is either attach or don't attach, which actually works out to be pretty cool. It makes you have to think less about that, but it also reduces some of the strategy.

GS: What were the biggest lessons of going through the design process of this game?

SB: Working within a tight schedule, sure, but specifically thinking about what we should keep or stay true to the genre so that the players could have something familiar, but also add a new twist in. The question was to what degree we could innovate within this short time frame. I think the biggest challenge was the scoping issue, overall. Do we have multiple weapons, all these different forms? It was just paring down the feature set, because we all had a lot of ideas for how we could innovate within the shooter space.

GS: Online lag has ruined a number of games dependent on sensitive timing, and old school shooters are pretty sensitive about that. How did you address that, especially for four-player action online?

DD: That was one of the things that became a problem throughout the whole project. There were many times where we thought we had something that would work but we realized it wouldn't work in all cases. We made certain decisions about how you're able to attach and things, so it takes care of itself when you're playing online. It was something we definitely struggled with the whole time, though.

You won't have time to examine the ships once the game starts, so here's a nice, clean look at what you'll be flying in Aegis Wing.
You won't have time to examine the ships once the game starts, so here's a nice, clean look at what you'll be flying in Aegis Wing.

SB: I would say that we were lucky to have the support of great development and programming mentors that really helped us through these problems.

GS: Have either of you ever "shipped" a game on this scale before?

SB: I've shipped two games in smaller roles. I worked on a game called Alter Echo that was released for the Xbox and PS2. That was my first design internship, and I was a design intern. I also worked on Galactic Civilizations II. I was basically a 3D modeler on that project. Those were great experiences with established companies that prepared me to come out here and work on Aegis Wing.

DD: No, I had never worked on a commercial title before.

GS: How are you feeling with so little time to go before people get their hands on it? What's going through your mind right now?

DD: We're really hoping for good feedback and hoping people like it. I don't know...I just can't wait to hear people's feedback on it and hope they enjoy it.

SB: This is definitely a larger scale [for me], at least in the role I played in the project. I'm definitely excited to see how it plays out. And being a Live title, I'm looking forward to playing with people online and seeing their reactions and how they actually play the game.

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